Well I could swear it’s only two days since we were propelled by the glory of God with a group of shepherds to a manger, where we encountered a tiny baby and recognised that this child was the Lord of the world, God made man, the Saviour of all mankind. It was his mother Mary that first made all these connections: the arrival of the shepherds and the announcement of the angel they bore witness to, confirmed for her that her child who had come into being through such extraordinary circumstances, was indeed incredibly special: destined to complete God’s purpose in ways she couldn’t fully comprehend. It was these things she turned over in her mind, cogitating on their significance, treasuring the pieces like a jigsaw made of precious stones.
Yet, here we are, twelve years on in the life of that tiny baby, encountering the Holy Family in very different circumstances. Jesus is of an age where we can assume he has had his bar mitzvah and is, in spiritual terms at least, a young man, a Son of the Law (as the Jews call it). He is also incredibly self-aware, and very sure on what he needs to start focusing. Mary adds to the treasure of his birth, through being given the fright of her life when her and Joseph’s instincts as human parents over-ride any of the logical understanding she may have gleaned in her pondering over the intervening years as to her son’s purposes in the world.
“Why were you looking for me? [asks Jesus] It was necessary that I had to be at my Father’s work.”
For someone who came into the world with (among other things) the purpose of showing that people’s proximity to God is not tied to the rituals and religiosity that had become the focus of Jewish life, Jesus seems to have spent a lot of his time at the heart of those traditions in the The Temple, and particularly at significant moments in his life. Simeon and Anna had of course recognised his purpose as the Messiah, when he was presented at the Temple as an infant – something that we shall celebrate at Candlemas. And of course, we remember that in the days leading up to his crucifixion he demonstrates most dramatically against what he has come to know of the corruption surrounding the worship of God at The Temple, throwing out the money-changers. And here he is at an important moment in his young life, sharing for days on end through questions and answers of great wisdom and understanding, in discourse with the elders of the Jewish faith, at the heart of their life of faith. It was where he needed to be so that he could return in his ministry equipped with an understanding of what the Jewish leaders were promoting and prioritising in their faith – for better, or as it turned out, for worse.
Mary and Joseph took for granted initially, that Jesus was with them, somewhere among the extended family – perfectly understandable in the culture of the time. They were simply getting on with their own lives. There were then two further days during which they had searched high and low in places so obvious that they are not detailed in scripture. They were probably the places they had stayed overnight, or among relatives who remained permanently in the city. It was only when those places prove fruitless avenues of investigation, that they turn their focus to The Temple, whether in hope or in prayer, we do not know.
There were three days we are told, between Jesus going missing, and him being found safe and well, in The Temple. Three days. Does that remind you of anything?
In his account of the resurrection, Luke will tell of two people, walking the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) sharing their anguish at the time that has elapsed since Jesus’ death, and it is only when a stranger explains that it was necessary for these things to happen, that they recognise the one for whom they search in the last place they would consider looking for him; walking with them on their desolate journey and in the breaking of bread.
I wonder if you have struggled to find Jesus this Christmas. You may have looked for him here in church, among the cribs at the festival, in the words of carols or in the sacraments that we have shared. You may have looked for him in the offering of time, money or gifts that you have provided to others, in the creativity of some craft, or in the silence of a long dark night. I hope that you have encountered him in those places, but you may not have done. That’s OK, don’t panic. You are no worse in your care of Jesus than Mary and Joseph were!
As parents, and parents of the Son of God at that, Mary and Joseph went about the task that God had charged them with. It was probably something of which they were only too well aware as they searched for him – what was God going to do to them if they lost his only Son?! It probably added its own special frisson to their sense of panic. When they find him, he makes it obvious that they should have looked for him where God was at work in his life, as the young Son of God – and at this point, that meant in the Temple. Others could see the reason why he was there, else they would not have commented on his wisdom and understanding.
It may be that as we receive that which others do for us that we find Jesus responding to the needs of our life. If we are the ones constantly busy doing things for God, we can not assume that we will automatically be able to encounter Jesus in what we are doing. It’s not that he’s not there working through us, he is. Jesus will be where he is most needed, but if he’s working through us for others, it may be that they are more likely to recognise him than us.
We may need to look elsewhere, quite possibly for the place in our lives where we see God helping us achieve something new or unexpected, or difficult. In this place there may be a seed of thoughtfulness, perhaps stimulated by scripture, or in prayer and sacrament, but perhaps by some other process of incarnation. Rather than worry and panic when we sense the lack of Jesus’ presence, we need to look for places where we can engage in a questioning of God, the sort of questioning that allows space for answers, for it is there that we may well find him afresh.
Jesus, we recognise that at times we are so busy with our own lives, that we do not notice that you have escaped our attention. Help us to search for you in places where you have the space to make your wisdom and understanding known to us, in the presence of God the Father, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.